Columnist Joe Gannon: Passionate intensity trumps a lack of conviction on Roe

Published: 5/13/2022 4:02:04 PM
Modified: 5/13/2022 4:00:27 PM

Sometimes, in times of trouble, I look to the old wisdom to help show the way. And one of the most immortal lines for such times is the poet W.B. Yeats’ most quoted words to explain a gathering darkness, against which there is no foreseeable light: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of a passionate intensity.”

Can we deny that is where we are? The MAGA crowd’s passionate intensity to tear down everything really does resemble a zealot’s death spiral. But we’ve known for a while that the right wing in this country long ago made a murder-suicide pact. And they are now kneeling on the neck of America just as Derek Chauvin did to George Floyd, but they do not know, or are too passionate to care, that they will die when America does.

Now, if you tweak the line, the best “lack all conviction” to mean lack all ideology — a coherent world view — to oppose the right, then it fits perfectly with Yeats’ warning. The best seem to lack any clue about how to organize to fight back because we cannot agree to any terms, policies, strategies, tactics or even language.

The seeming end of Roe v. Wade is a good example of confusing convictions with ideology. The left is good at the things it believes in, but it has no ideology: meaning a world view that is coherent. We believed that Roe would last forever; we were wrong. And every single Supreme Court confirmation brought up the precarious nature of a right to abortion based solely on judicial permission.

But the liberal/left took that as the best course, as fighting it out in state legislatures would fail for maybe decades. And it would have, but those 50 years of hoping the black-robed justices would do the work of organizing has now failed.

It has been clear since 2000 that this decision was inevitable. Once the Supreme Court handed a presidential election to George W. Bush on a partisan 5-4 decision, any notion that it was impartial was gone. And 22 years later here we are: Trump’s three justices lied through their teeth about Roe being the law of the land, to get on the court only to overturn it.

Is this attack new? Or does it follow a pattern? Once the Civil War ended slavery and the conditional amendment passed, it took 30 years before the court in Plessy v Ferguson (1896) codified American racial apartheid and ended the brief experiment of allowing freed people to become citizens. Then it took a century of struggle, pain, blood, organizing, marching, and getting the vote out to reinstitute the letter and spirit of the Civil War in the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act of the 1960s. Fifty years later the Supreme Court began unraveling that as well.

Why do we think of Roe v. Wade as outside this endless process of expanding freedom met with right-wing resistance, and then unraveling?

Indeed, as an op-ed in the New York Times notes, the Supreme Court decision to end official apartheid in Brown v. Board of Education could very well have led to the relentless assault on Roe: “Publicly opposing desegregation was not really socially acceptable ... But opposing abortion was. And abortion rights had followed a similar procedural path ... as other civil rights cases ... to win constitutional protections at the Supreme Court to override state laws ... criticizing Roe became a way to talk about ‘government overreach’ ... and the need to ‘protect the family’ without having to actively oppose civil rights or desegregation.”

This is especially true if you note that in the early 1970s even the now MAGA-driven, openly white-nationalist Southern Baptist Convention took a neutral position on abortion in the case of rape or a danger to the mother’s life.

So, when taken together, this assault on Roe is in line with all takebacks on rights, not only codified in law, but especially granted by the Supreme Court.

What then is to be done? How can one go on with this incessant barrage of attacks whose only purpose is to demoralize democracy into succumbing? One of the roadblocks is the scattered, kaleidoscope way we live and interact these days. We’ve never been more connected via social media, and never more fractured into tiny competing communities.

So those who favor freedom will come together to form caravans, safe havens for women who need an abortion. We will react to the crisis, this time, next time and the time after that.

How do we oppose an enemy who has an ideology, a coherent world view, even if that view is to destroy democracy?

It is a lonely mountaintop to howl from, but the very seeds of our salvation lay at our feet like acorns in an oak forest. If we are ever to make a winning coalition for freedom, it can only be done by utilizing the one shared story that we all do have: The United States was founded on the idea that all people are created equal, and endowed with the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Everything the pro-democracy fighters need to form that coalition is in the words of our founding documents. But the official left despises those words and rejects their truly revolutionary nature because of the hypocrisy of those same founders, which mean we refuse to accept the radical nature of our founding and apply it to our current politics, as an organizing principle.

So women will suffer when Roe is reversed, and the right will continue to unravel democracy and the left will only watch, and howl. But the left will never make that grand coalition until it finds a “conviction” the rest of America can sign on to.

Until then, bad passions will continue to beat no convictions.

Joe Gannon, lives in Easthampton. He can be reached at


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